Tessa McWatt’s fourth novel for adults is a powerful and suspenseful examination of relationships and the secrets that can both create and destroy them.
McWatt creates suspense by flashing backward and forward in time. In the present, Emily is living in Spain with her boyfriend Sam, a scientist researching viruses. Emily is trying to come to terms with a tragedy involving Gavin and Marcus, two friends linked by violence and deception. The relationships between the characters are revealed slowly, propelling readers steadily through the book.
McWatt does an excellent job depicting local colour. Her physical descriptions – of the Camino de Santiago, of the bulls in Pamplona, of food – are immersive. Her respect for language is palpable and exciting. Thinking about her self-imposed task of coming to terms with the past, Emily writes: “Words have built up over the years, repeating themselves in a loop as I sleep. In attempts over the last five years to write the beginning, middle, and end of Gavin’s story, some words settle, like those you’ve just read, but others grow in vertical piles so high they regularly tumble.” Addressing readers directly can frequently appear artificial, but McWatt employs this technique with grace, and in so doing, draws the reader further into the weave of her story.
The pace of the novel sags a bit in the middle, and the demonstration by animal rights activists against the running of the bulls seems a bit contrived as an ending. But overall, Step Closer is a brilliant examination of guilt and culpability.